The Tale Of The Red Kite

I have never made any secret of the fact that I am a self proclaimed raptor lover. Since the moment I opened a bird ID book, I have been fascinated by the many specimens of birds of prey that exist in our world, though to this day I cannot pinpoint exactly why. Perhaps it is their beauty, their power, or of the sheer regality of even the smallest raptor species, but I have always found them some of our most impressive species. Whatever the reason, to me, birds of prey are some of the most fascinating predators that still exist on our Earth. However, not everyone would agree with such sentiments and, as many of us know, raptors are not looked upon by all with a friendly eye. Many species face many plights, but for once, I wanted to focus on the success of one particular species in the UK. A magnificent bird which, only a few decades ago, was a very rare sight indeed. The Red Kite.

In 2016, we are fortunate enough to find our Red Kite populations to be very healthy indeed. Once a red listed species on the list of ‘Birds Of Conservation Concern’, the Red Kite now has green status across much of the UK, with around 1,600 breeding pairs throughout the country. But, as any bird of prey is, the Red Kite has recently become subjected to rumour. Rumour that they are now perhaps too prevalent, particularly in towns and cities, with some people being worried by the numbers of these birds when others lay out food for them. Although some people (myself included) adore the sight of these birds swooping down on their gardens, others feel as if they have been delved into some kind of modern version of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. However, I am not going to discuss this particular debate here, but rather remember the dire future that our Red Kites once faced.

To go back to the very beginning of the decline of the Red Kite in the UK, we find ourselves in the Middle Ages, the time of the 100 Years War, The Battle of Hastings, Crusades and the plague. A time when the Red Kite was something of a national treasure. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, Red Kites were considered a blessing, as their ability to be great scavengers kept the streets clean and kept disease at bay. They were so important in fact, that they were protected by royal decree and anyone who was found to have harmed a Red Kite would suffer capital punishment. However, toward the end of the 15th century, King James II of Scotland, declared that they should be persecuted in his country as they had now come to be viewed as ‘vermin’. In England and Wales, the Red Kite remained protected for a further 100 years, however, after this they began to be viewed as a threat to the ‘produce of the countryside’, and large bounties were placed upon their heads. Persecution had raised its ugly head and unfortunately, these first incidences would now pave the way for the next few centuries, with gamekeepers viewing Red Kites, and many other birds of prey, as threats to their game and therefore their livelihoods. As numbers of Red Kite fell dramatically, their rarity contributed even further to their problems. A Red Kite was rare, therefore their eggs and bodies became keen targets for taxidermists and egg collectors.

The year is now 1871, for three centuries the Red Kite has faced persecution and falling populations. Queen Victoria sits on the throne, ‘Through The Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There’ is published and the Red Kite is now extinct in England. Fast forward 8 years to 1879, and the Red Kite is now extinct in Scotland. Now, only a small number of pairs exist in the very remote regions of Wales. However, by 1903, the year when Edward VII is proclaimed Emperor of India and Bradford City Football club is established, conservationists recognise the dire straits that the Red Kite is in and protection efforts finally begin. However, the gene pool of the remaining Kites are very low and by the 1930s, it was realised that all pairs that survived were derived from one single female. During the 1950s, the outbreak of myxomatosis in rabbits caused a huge decline in the food availability of the Red Kite and it was not until the swinging 60s that the number of breeding pairs surpassed 20. The recovery of the Red Kite was proving very slow indeed and was a result of many influencing factors. One was entirely natural,  with the area where the Kites were located being highly susceptible to poor weather, with very low prey availability that impacted breeding success, whilst the others were the continuation of illegal persecution and the impact of organochlorine pesticides.

As a consequence of these threats, the level of chick production that was occurring in Wales was all too low for the species to be able to successfully spread into England and Scotland. As these adverse factors were recognised, the RSPB decided to take direct action to help the struggling species. In 1989, with the support of numerous bodies, the Red Kite re-introduction programme was put into action by the RSPB, partnered with Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage. Through the introduction of adult birds from other countries, Red Kites began to establish themselves in regions of both Scotland and England. The reintroduced birds were taken from a number of different European countries, with 6 Swedish birds being realised in Scotland and another 4 being released in Buckinghamshire, along with a single Welsh bird. In total, 93 birds from Sweden and Spain were released at the identified reintroduction sites.

By 1995, The International Year of Tolerance, a second reintroduction stage was implemented till 1996, with more birds being brought over from Germany to colonise areas of Dumfries and Galloway. The success and apparent popularity of the Red Kite continued, and in 1999 it was declared ‘Bird of The Century’ by the BTO and has been voted Wales’ ‘favourite bird.’ From 2004-2006, The North East (my home county!) was the next county to be introduced to the species, with 94 birds being released into the Derwent Valley. Northern Ireland soon followed suit with the reintroductions and between 2008 and 2010, 80 birds who came from successful Welsh stocks, were introduced successfully.

The reintroductions have been nothing short of a roaring success, with many counties having experienced reintroductions and now boasting many successful breeding pairs. Northamptonshire has become something of a stronghold for the Red Kite and in 2006, the first Red Kite for 150 years was sighted in London. This magnificent bird is now a frequent site in many areas of the UK, with the southern counties maintaining some of the highest numbers of breeding pairs. However, the reintroductions and breeding programmes are still continuing, with the Forestry Commission in North West England announcing in 2010 that it would implement a 3 year project to release 90 Red Kites into the Grizedale Forest in Cumbria. This is the 9th introduction in England and will hopefully, with the Red Kite now thriving, be the last.

It has been a complicated history for the Red Kite, but their tale is a triumphant one. Through breeding programmes and full protection by the Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Red Kite has gone from being extinct to a green status species in 145 years in England and 137 years in Scotland. However, this does not mean that the Red Kite does not still face threats. Illegal persecution is still a huge problem to all birds of prey and due to the Kites ability to be an effective and regular scavenger, they are particularly susceptible to poisoning. Poison is very indiscriminate in its victims and those poisoned baits that are laid out for other species often kill Red Kites. In Scotland, the survival of juvenile Kites is very low due to poisoning rates and is consequently limiting the growth of the Red Kite population here, with estimates of a third of released and wild bred Kites being killed by poison between 1989 and 2001. In addition, poisoning is also the leading cause of premature deaths in England.

So! The Red Kite is a stable species in the UK, but not a species without threat. Although we should be overjoyed at their apparent success, we should remember the state that they were in only a century and a half ago, and the sheer tenacity and determination of our conservationists to save one of our most magnificent and beautiful species.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”- Winston Churchill.

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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